“We often let things pass by because we are too polite”

December 24, 2023

A conversation with Egyptian novelist, essayist and socio-political activist Ahdaf Soueif

“We often let things pass by because we are too polite”

Ahdaf Soueif is an Egyptian novelist, essayist and socio-political activist. She was born in Cairo and educated in Egypt and England, completing her PhD in English literature at the University of Lancaster.

“We often let things pass by because we are too polite”

Observing Arab customs in an English household and the political events back home prompted in Soueif a growing sense of Arab identity and a re-examination of her sense of belonging. A reflection of a sense of displacement, loss and nostalgia can be found in her short stories and novels In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love. The latter was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. In recent times, this disillusionment has channelled into political activism, resulting in her co-founding the Palestine Festival of Literature in 2008 to highlight the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Soueif has a wonderfully subtle way of showing how the political and the personal intertwine. Her take on the recent events in Egypt resulted in Cairo: My City, Our Revolution – rich in detail and human experience.

In the interview with The News on Sunday below, she opens up on various aspects of living in two continents, the insurgency in Palestine and the battles won and lost. Excerpts:


The News on Sunday: What was Egypt’s political climate like when you were growing up there?

Ahdaf Soueif: I was born in Cairo, but I went to England with my parents when I was two years old. My mother was doing her PhD in English literature. We lived there until I was seven. After that, we returned and stayed in Cairo during Gamal Abdel Nasser’s time. I was in and out of England for many years after that until I decided to do my PhD during Anwar al-Sadat’s time, based in Cairo.

My parents were Leftists; they were pro-Palestine and pro-liberation, in general. They were not openly anti-Nasser but they firmly believed that the revolution or the coup in 1952 aborted a civil movement geared towards democracy that had been happening in Egypt for a long time and that Egypt was taken over by the military. They liked a lot of things that Nasser did – the national insurance for health care, university-free education; nationalisation of the Suez canal, and so on. But they didn’t like the one-party aspect of it that could lead to dictatorship. They refused to join any party or take up official positions in the state. They were academics. I should say that before the 2011 revolution, my mother died suddenly and my father, who was in the late 80s, was very supportive of the revolution.

TNS: When did the reality of an Arab identity dawn on you?

AS: When I was growing up in Cairo, it was a city of six million people; now it’s a city of 22 million. Its growth is unplanned, and it’s crowded and polluted. In the ’60s and the ’70s, it was multi-cultural in the sense that many foreign art troupes would come to Egypt and you could see the best of them. At that point, I didn’t even think about identity because Egyptian identity was very open. It was in England, much later, that I became conscious of it. It was Arab, but it was also Mediterranean; it was Muslim and Christian; and, of course, politically, it was looking towards the East – the subcontinent and Africa. We were aware of our political side. There’s a book of essays called Mezzaterra. In the introduction to the book, I deal completely with the issue of how this is being seen and how our image of ourselves has changed.

Even though I was bilingual and bicultural, my identity was always being questioned when I was in my twenties in England. For instance, “How would you like to describe yourself?” The boundaries between identities were much clearer in England at that time than they were in Egypt. You were even asked if you were Shi’ite or Sunni – which implied something I had never thought about because even though Egypt is officially Sunni, by virtue of the fact that it had been under many regimes for so long, it also had a Shi’ite spirit to it.

I think living in England made me very conscious of how we were presented in the Western media. Out of my first two collections of short stories, Aesha and Sandpiper, I dealt with the issue of identity in the story called Sandpiper. That was part of the reason why after The Map of Love, I started writing essays and addressing issues of representation in the English language.

TNS: In the novel In the Eye of the Sun, Asya has been quoted as “feeling more comfortable with art than with life.” How would you explain that?

AS: Growing up in Cairo as a child and a teenager, my access to the world was very limited. It was mainly my family, my bigger family, my school and my class. Any access to the larger world, and to its larger issues and emotions was through the meagre means of reading stories and through watching films and plays: those became my reference points. When I would be exposed to something in later life, my reference points would be what I had read in a novel or what I had seen in an opera or play. I think that’s what it means really: that somehow representations in art are more real than what actually happens in life.

My mother was a literary critic and professor of English and American literatures. My parents, as a young couple, were part of an avant-garde bunch of artists. We had a good library at home. Of course, in those days, there was no social media, no YouTube, etc., so, I used my mother’s library. I grew up with all the big Russians in translation – from Tolstoy to Gogol – and with the English classics. I read practically everything: Tagore and Achebe, and Colette in translation and was much taken with her. Of course, I read Naguib Mahfouz, Yahya Yakhlif and Yusuf Idris among the Arab authors. But I came to Arab literature later because of those three years in England when I was four until seven, my first reading language was English. I just naturally tended to read more in English, but in my teens, I read modern Arab literature.

I would truthfully say that the influences on my writing were the European writers: if one were to specify, primarily George Eliot (Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch), Colette (short stories, memories of her mother and Chéri) and Tolstoy (Anna Karenina).

TNS: What motivated you to translate Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah?

AS: Mourid and his wife were very close friends. Radwa Ashour was four years ahead of me at the English Department at Cairo University and a student of my mother’s. At one point, I had finished writing The Map of Love and handed it to my publisher, but it hadn’t been published yet when Radwa phoned me and said, “We need to translate Mourid’s I saw Ramallah.” I had read the book and loved it. She said, “I know you just finished a novel, so you may have time to translate it.”

It’s interesting to note here that I found the business of looking at a text and then writing my own, very impeding. I resolved the dilemma by reading out the Arabic text and then speaking it in English into a tape recorder. Somebody would then transcribe it and I would edit it on the page. Also, I was very lucky, since we were friends, that I could call Mourid and ask him for permission to let me do certain things. For example, in Arabic, you can have the entire paragraph in a question form. In English, it’s cumbersome and doesn’t feel right. So, I asked him if I could turn his questions into statements.

Likewise, whenever Mourid met somebody new or even mentioned, he would give him a title, such as doctor or professor. I told him that it didn’t quite work in English the same way and asked him if I could use people’s names instead. I was able to propose these changes to him, which I would not do as a translator or had the right to. I think this is partly why this book has been so successful because it remained true to the original but it also went into an English idiom that people could relate to.

TNS: The foreword to the translated edition of Mourid’s memoir was written by Edward Said. What is your recollection of him?

AS: I had met Edward back in 1981 and we remained friends until his death. He was a very learned man. I learnt a great deal from him.

Edward was too close to me to be objective about. He made a unique contribution to the way people looked at the Orient, and he put Palestine on the map for the English-speaking public. He used his stature and position to articulate the Palestine issue. That he was outspoken about the Palestine issue is tremendously important but if I were to say what is it that I found most striking about him, it was his curiosity. He was always very curious and engaged. He took it to the level where you would be sitting together and eating a sandwich and he would want to know what exactly was in your sandwich: “Is there a gherkin in there?”

He was opinionated but he would listen and make room for your argument. One thing I learned from him, for example, was that no matter how terrible the things that he was describing were, he always left his audience on a note of hope and he would always give people something to do. There was a big student event about Palestine when he was asked, “What can we do?” He said: “You can start by challenging things that ‘they’ said in front of you that you know are just not true. Very often we let things pass by because we are polite or because we do not want to be bold enough to say, ‘Actually, I don’t agree’ and give your reasons.”

The last time we met at one of his events, he was very ill and his immunity had suffered. After the talk, the young people just wanted to touch him. They didn’t want anything else, just the touch. And he let them touch him despite the low immunity. He was so generous.

TNS: What has been the importance of Jean Genet’s last piece of writing to you?

AS: It was back in 2004 that the New York Review of Books was reissuing Genet’s Prisoner of Love. They had asked Edward who confessed that he didn’t know anything about the author, and passed on the buck to me. I had read the book already, and thought it was a great honour to be asked to write the introduction. It was a big experience. The editor of that series was very good, and he kept coming back to me to expand this or that. In the end, it turned out to be a good piece of work. When Faber recently reissued all of Genet, it asked me to write the intro to The Thief’s Journal. The original introduction was written by Sartre. They included that and then my intro that bounced off Sartre’s.

First of all, there was the book’s biographical background. Here was somebody who had stopped writing for more than a decade. When he was asked, he said, “I have nothing more to say.” After he’d finished all those books and done the plays, he didn’t want to write anymore. When in 1982, the Sabra and Shatila massacre happened, Genet was invited by a Palestinian friend to Beirut. He was there at the time of war. He went to Shatila – to the massacre site – and wrote a short piece about it. After that, he decided to write Prisoner of Love about the Palestinians.

Here was somebody who broke the silence of decades in order to write about something that was, in a sense, outside the world that he had been writing about before. But he shared with it the sentiment of rebellion, the rebellious spirit, and the people who refused to accept the way the system was. Genet had cancer of the throat while he was writing it: he refused to take medication because it would dull his mind. When he died eventually, they found the complete manuscript on his desk. There was a note on top of it saying: “Then we search for the image.”

Of course, that’s a very educative story. For me, the book is full of passion. Genet is writing about something he cares for deeply but it’s also very literary. The way he plays between the literary and the documentary sides of the book is amazing, welling up images that are unforgettable. It’s almost a lesson in writing because he’s actually taking the reader through stages where he arrives at an image.

TNS: What made you co-found (together with your son) the Literature Festival of Palestine?

AS: Firstly, as a child of the Nasser era, I was brought up in the Palestinian cause. The posters that I had in my room as a teenager had Che Guevara on them or those of Palestinian protest.

I went to Palestine for the first time at the end of 2000 for The Guardian. I fell in love with it, and with the Palestinian people living a generous and brave resistance. I was also surprised by it because since I knew much about its issues, I had expected to find an embattled society. Instead, I found a very vibrant and alive society – a society insistent in culture and in being part of the world.

I was doing a piece for The Guardian but I was also thinking that I wish more people were going through this experience. Having thought about that for years and talked to my friends and son, we suddenly decided that we should help people come and see the reality on the ground in Palestine. We invited writers and artists who were not supporters of Palestine and who believed that Israel is a democracy and a civilised place. We organised a literary event, asking the residents to travel with us for a week because we believed this experience would change them. And that’s what it actually did.

It was important because it was a travelling event – to go from any Palestinian city to another, you had to go through Israeli checkpoints. We said we will not make our audience come through the checkpoints – we will go through the checkpoints to them. That was education for the visitors because in each city, the occupation looked different. We were not, however, supposed to be political because we set ourselves up as a UK charity. We had to be very careful to adhere to the BDS (Boycott, Divestments, Strategies) guidelines.

We were doing a literary festival, and that’s how we moved under the radar. We stayed away from the political authorities, making public readings, doing workshops and seminars in universities, etc. We wanted them to write for the Western media – the Arabs already know the story.

TNS: There’s been a remarkable shift in your career as a writer, moving from fiction to non-fiction.

AS: If you look at my first novel, In the Eye of the Sun, there’s already a mention of Palestine and a concern with the 1967 war. Then in The Map of Love there’s a Palestinian character, the story of Palestine and the politics of Egypt at the time. What happened was that when The Map of Love was nominated for the Booker Prize, I suddenly had a much bigger platform.

As I was writing the article for The Guardian, I thought I was using my skills as a novelist to bring alive the scene/ issue in Palestine for the reader. I was very comfortable with that. I hijacked myself into writing non-fiction: essays and reviews at the intersection of politics and culture.

I didn’t sit down and say I won’t be writing fiction, but to write a novel, you really have to give it everything. And it takes a long time as if these immediate things will actually have an effect and will change something in the way a novel wouldn’t. They were immediate; they had deadlines. So, I just got swept up by what you would call cultural activism.

TNS: What is your take on the Arab Spring? What parameters define nomenclatures like the Middle-East, the Asia Minor, the East Bank, the Gaza Strip, etc?

AS: I was reading about the history of Lahore. An English colonial administrator decided to give Lahore to Pakistan because he had given Calcutta to India. Look at what happened at FabIndia in Delhi two days ago. They were putting out their new collection called Jashan-i-Riwaaj in an advert with models. They were criticised for “Islamising the Indian culture” for the models not wearing the bindi, etc. The attacks were incredible. The collection that had nothing to do with Diwali had to be withdrawn and the advertisement removed. The fact is that when you draw lines and partition people this way, you divide their hearts.

I used to say the West Bank but then I learnt from our young Palestinian activist friends that we do not accept their divisions and borders, that all of it is Palestine. And whether it is Nazareth or Haifa or Jerusalem or Ramallah, it’s all Palestine. The issue of the nomenclature is very difficult to quit.

Now, it’s relatively simple to talk about the Arab world – these are the countries where Arabic is the first language. People can talk about the Western culture and everybody knows what that means. But when you talk about the Eastern world, what exactly are you talking about: the Arab world, India or China? If you talk about the Muslim culture, that is already embattled.

The defeat of the revolution in Egypt is comprehensive even if we think of it as a stage. People often say that revolutions go on for a long time and that it’s a stage of defeat. The lesson that the current regime has learnt from experience – they were part of the old regime – is to close down all space for opposition or resistance. Look at Mubarak. He wanted his son to succeed him, and given his character as a very cautious person, he needed to sell himself to the West on the basis of being semi-democratic. So, he allowed spaces to open up. At least, people could speak up even though they were encircled by the police.

The interviewer is an art critic based in Islamabad

“We often let things pass by because we are too polite”